The new Lafayette Bridge is finished — well, almost.

Except for a few final touches to be applied over the next few weeks, work on the Hwy. 52 bridge over the Mississippi River connecting downtown St. Paul with the city's West Side and southeastern suburbs is finally done.

It took five construction seasons to replace the original Lafayette bridge that was opened to traffic in 1968. The aging structure had been identified as one of the state's most deficient when bridge inspections ramped up after the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. Work on the new Hwy. 52 bridge started in 2011.

"This took a long time and it was well worth the wait," State Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said at a celebration Tuesday at Metropolitan State University. "We see this as a larger vision of what transportation is for our state."

The $130 million project consists of two bridges, with each 3,200-foot span having two traffic lanes and auxiliary lanes to handle merging and exiting traffic. It also included a major redesign of ramps at the I-94 and I-35E interchange and improved access to downtown streets.

Additional features include pedestrian access and bikeways allowing bicyclists to cross the Mississippi River from Plato Boulevard to E. 7th Street and access the Bruce Vento Trail, the Lowertown area and CHS Field. Piers were set to accommodate barge traffic, and lights on the bridge were set lower than normal to avoid interfering with aircraft approaching the nearby St. Paul Downtown Airport.

"We made sure it is for all users of the system, not just cars," Zelle said.

For motorists, Tuesday's celebration officially brings an end to four years of navigating narrow lanes and tight and twisting turns on the bridge and bridge decks over I-94, Plato Boulevard, Eaton Street and Concord Boulevard.

"Having dealt with construction and crossing that bridge on a fairly regular basis, I am so glad that obstacle course … at the beginning of the north end of the bridge is gone," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "It was quite an exciting challenge. We are happy that is over."

In coming weeks, crews will wrap up work on abutments and sidewalks and clear away the last of the old bridge over I-94. The ramp from southbound I-35E to southbound Hwy. 52 is expected to reopen by the end of the month, and landscaping will be completed next year. But motorists won't see any more lane closures or detours, MnDOT said.

Going forward, Zelle said the Lafayette Bridge stands as an example of what MnDOT can do with appropriate levels of funding.

"We have more bridges and more needs throughout the state," the commissioner said. "We know the need is still there."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768